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Local lawmakers back bill addressing transgender people in school bathrooms, locker rooms

By Brian Brueggemann, Belleville News-Democrat

Illinois has its own version of the which-bathroom-people-should-use issue that raised a ruckus in North Carolina.

Illinois’ version of the contentious debate is in the form of legislation whose co-sponsors include metro-east lawmakers from both parties.

The Illinois bill, House Bill 4474, would require schools to designate student restrooms and locker rooms as being either for males or for females. Those restrooms and locker rooms would be “for the exclusive use of pupils of only one sex.” A student’s gender would be “determined by an individual’s chromosomes and identified at birth by that individual’s anatomy.”

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Transgender students would be allowed to use “single-occupancy” restrooms or locker rooms.

Metro-east lawmakers co-sponsoring the bill are Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville; Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton; Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon and Rep. John Cavaletto, R-Salem.

Meier said it’s not an easy issue.

“I just feel that, do you want your child changing in the same restrooms where you’ve got somebody of the opposite sex?” Meier said. “If I’m old-fashioned, so be it. I’m worried about the youth in that situation.”

Costello noted the bill involves not just bathrooms, but also changing rooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms.

“It’s not just a bathroom stall situation,” Costello said. “And I think something that’s important to realize about this bill is, contrary to some of the other bills that have taken place in this nation, this bill deals with public schools and public school students.”

He added, “My belief is, when a parent sends their child to school, there is a reasonable expectation of privacy for that child, as far as using the restroom or shower room that is designated for that sex.”

The bill’s chief sponsor is Rep. Thomas Morrison, a Republican from Palatine. His legislative district covers a school district where a high school student – who was born male but was transitioning to a female – wanted to use the girls’ locker rooms. The student began transitioning during middle school and was undergoing hormone therapy but had not yet undergone a gender reassignment procedure.

The case sparked debate, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights determined the school district broke the law and discriminated against the student. That meant the school district risked the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding.

As part of a settlement, the school district agreed to allow the student to use the girls’ locker room.

Morrison said the Department of Education’s ruling “has pressured many school districts around the state to comply with this new interpretation.”

He added, “the school board that is in my district agreed to a settlement that was not deemed acceptable by the vast majority of people in my district.”

Morrison said parents should check how their school districts are dealing with the issue.

“I think it’s important for parents to be asking their elected officials at the school board level, and also their school administrators, how their own districts are handling this issue,” Morrison said. “What was very surprising to me is how many schools, both in my district and outside my district, are handling this without notifying parents of these changes to policy.”

Jeff Dosier, superintendent at Belleville School District 201, which covers Belleville East and Belleville West high schools, said the district does not have a policy addressing the issue.

Dosier said the district would welcome some guidance from the legislature.

“This is one where there are many different opinions. It’s a very complicated issue,” Dosier said. “From what I have seen on this bill, it does give school districts direction on how to handle these situations. Having clear direction on how we handle it would be helpful.”

He added, “Basically, I can tell you that we follow the advice of our attorney on difficult topics like this. What I’ve come to realize is that no two situations are exactly the same.”

Dosier said the issue came up at the start of the current school year.

Dosier said the student moved before school leaders made any decisions on how to accommodate the student.

“It’s not a very frequent issue, but it’s usually complicated when it does come up,” Dosier said.

Matt Klosterman, superintendent at Belleville District 118, which educates grades K-8, said the district doesn’t have a policy on the issue.

“We pretty much have, ‘Here’s the boys’ restroom, here’s the girls’ restroom,'” Klosterman said. “At this point, that issue hasn’t been brought forward in my district, that I know of. It’s a touchy issue, but it’s not really an issue that we’ve been confronted with.”

Morrison’s bill would require schools to label restrooms and changing rooms as being for only males or only females, “for the exclusive use of pupils of only one sex.”

Students who identify as transgender would be allowed to use “a single-occupancy restroom or changing room.” Morrison said that could perhaps include a faculty restroom or a referee locker room.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t add an unfunded mandate, so the bill just offers a suggestion to a school board where a student is asking for an accommodation,” Morrison said.

In North Carolina, the state legislature recently passed a law that prevents local governments from opening bathrooms for people to use based on the gender with which they identify. Local school districts would be banned from allowing students to use communal bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates. Schools still could allow transgender students to use single-occupancy facilities.

The North Carolina law has drawn heated debate, even prompting rocker Bruce Springsteen to cancel a show in the state.

Equality Illinois, a gay advocacy group, issued a statement in opposition to the Illinois legislation.

“The real harm is not just for transgender students but all students regardless of their gender identity. It promotes bullying, gender policing and body shaming — all practices that hurt all students and can be devastating for transgender students trying solely to get the good quality education they deserve,” the group said. “This bill also feeds into the false narrative that sex and gender fit neatly into a binary model, and it should not see the light of day.”

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said, “These anti-LGBT equality bills are part of a broad national effort to weaken the equal rights of LGBT people.”

Christopher Clark, an attorney for Lambda Legal, an advocacy group for gays and transgender people, called the legislation “a discriminatory bill that would ban schools from allowing transgender students from using the facilities that correspond to their gender identity.”

Clark also said the bill “encourages ‘bathroom policing’ by providing a complaint process for other students or their parents who want to target and harass transgender students.”

The bill also encourages ‘bathroom policing’ by providing a complaint process for other students or their parents who want to target and harass transgender students.

Roger Eddy, director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said the group has not taken a stance on the legislation, but is keeping an eye on it.

“Generally, our position is that each school board or school district needs to rely on its individual legal counsel to get through this complicated area. Even within those legal opinions there are some different thoughts,” Eddy said.

Eddy added that “since we support the larger concept of local control, we will likely simply monitor this and watch for any unfunded mandates that might arise regarding issues related to this topic.”

Morrison said he can’t predict the bill’s future in a legislature controlled by Democrats. But he noted the co-sponsors include Democrats from Chicago, such as Rep. Mary Flowers, and Democrats from downstate, such as Rep. John Bradley and Rep. Brandon Phelps.

Costello said, “I’m elected to represent the values and beliefs of my district.”

The North Carolina law, House Bill 2, affects schools as well as other public facilities, but would allow private businesses to continue using their own policies.

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(c)2016 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)

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